The baroque extravagance of the Hoysala temples in the State of Karnataka is evidence of the creative genius of bygone times that has weathered the centuries. Here we rediscover two of the most beautiful and extravagant temples, those of Belur and Halebeed.
(continued from Part 1)
All the sculpture decorating the temples at Belur and Halebeed is carved from chloritic schist that is dense grey, dark blue or creamy brown. It is governed by uniform decorative, anatomical and stylistic principles. The themes that appealed to the Hoysala artist seem to be human and animal forms, floral and geometric patterns in different architectural contexts. On the ceilings and perforated screens one finds abstract patterns while the doorways, basements and railings are embellished with smaller figures, scrolls and motifs. The outer walls are filled with large reliefs of divinities and their entourages.
Perhaps more than passion or romance it is female beauty that is celebrated by Hoysala artists. Young women engaged in music, dance, sport and self-adulation adorn the surfaces, all reflecting feminine vanity in one way or another. These young women or ‘sursundaris’ as they were known, epitomise the concept of female beauty. Human or divine, their many forms of physical beauty are captivating. We find for example, a series of a lady admiring or adorning herself, plucking fruits, feeding a parrot, dancing, or surrounded by nature. As evident by their sheer numbers, sculptors seemed to favour dancers in various postures, celebrating the vibrant lines their bodies made. They are an embodiment of life and death, good and evil, objects of love and desire.
It is evident that ornaments were important features of the sculptures. The entire body, male and female, is bedecked with intricately carved ornaments studded with jewels, stones and strings of pearls. There is a specific ornament for each part of the body, from head to toe and every inch of the body is covered. The most conspicuous and unusual ornament is the ‘Vaijayanti”, a long string resembling a waist band which emerges from the back of the hip, curves widely on the knees and disappears below the left vertical portion of the ‘hara’ or the necklace. Most often there are three varieties of necklaces worn by the figures. The individuality of the Hoysala School stands out in the detailed, intricate and elaborate finish of the ornaments. This is seen even in the other accessories worn by the figures, such as pendants, crowns, weapons etc.
Most of the figures on the outer walls are those of cult deities and their attendants. The group consisting of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh (the divine trilogy of the Creator, Protector and Destroyer), the Dashavatar or the ten incarnations of Vishnu or the popular couple of Shiva with his consort Parvati are the favourite subjects. There are also the figures of Yakshas (divine courtiers), either in miniature relief around the deities or in large size guarding the doorways. All deities are flanked by two or more miniature attendants and stand on curved but plain pedestals. The sculptors used dance and music, play and sport to lend rhythmic movement to the sculptures and so all the figures are lifelike. Even the creeper canopies surrounding the deities have their own characteristic features and stand apart one from the other.
The mouldings of the basements of the temples are decorated with motifs of animals. Elephants seem to have held a special place in the hearts of the Hoysala artists. No other school of art has treated these animals as extensively and elaborately. The reason for this could be that the artists of the time lived in a land that even today is famous for wild elephants. As such they must have had first-hand experience and knowledge of this majestic animal. There are about one thousand two hundred and forty-eight elephants depicted on the outer walls of the temples at Halebeed. With or without mahouts, in war or at play, they all have the same sort of conspicuous decorations adorning them.
Horses too seem favoured. They appear as embellished representations of those that were a part of the cavalry units of the Hoysala army. Vivid and realistic, they express the sheer spirit of the animals of those times carrying in their saddles weapon-wielding warriors. The powerful and expressive depiction by sculptors of the different ways in which riders and horses attack or succumb to their enemies and the ways in which they ride and charge into battle suggest that as much as imagination, experience seems to have played its role in guiding the hand of creation. This is further evidenced by their attention to proportion and detail. Besides being proportionate in size, the horses are dressed and decorated with restraint, fitted with a saddle, bridle, reins, stirrups and bells.
The lion, being the symbol of the dynasty, holds a place of special importance. Apart from the crest, one thousand four hundred and sixty lions appear on friezes at Halebeed. Unlike the manner in which horses and elephants are treated, the lion takes on exaggerated expression. Perhaps because of its symbolic nature, this splendid creature goes beyond realistic representation, moving instead into symbolic realms. To the Hoysala sculptor, the lion is a fantastic creature.
Another animal that makes its appearance is born from the world of the imagination. It is known as the Makara or sea elephant. Local legend says that it is a combination of seven animals, each symbolic of some virtue. For example – a crocodile’s mouth for ‘grip’ or a monkey’s eyes for ‘sharpness’. It is invariably presented with its upraised head or snout, wide open jaws revealing long sharp teeth and the tongue and tail resembling bursting flames.
Apart from this fantastic creature, bulls too find a place of importance especially as the vehicle of Shiva. The two Nandis at the Hoysaleshwara temple at Halebeed are apt tributes to the power and beauty of this animal. Carved out of monolithic stone blocks of eight or nine feet, and exquisitely carved to highlight the finest of detail including the folds of the skin and adorned with elaborate ornamentation, these bulls are awesome in their appearance.
Other animals such as monkeys, camels, mice, buffalos, rams and birds like peacocks, swans and small birds too are present in most reliefs. The artists have used an infinite variety of stylised foliage and scroll creepers. Vegetative motifs and floral patterns surrounding deities in which you can see monkeys playing and birds flying seem to compete with nature itself. The finish given to every minute detail is amazing. You can see here the nail of the deity piercing through the skin of the elephant, appearing on the other side. Or the fingers of the drummer through the ropes on the drum…the skin of stone relenting to the magical touch of master sculptors.
The most remarkable feature of these temples are the reliefs which present continuous narratives, entire episodes captured in single compositions. Although the epics have always played a major role in Indian art through the centuries, nowhere else would one find entire stories depicted in sculpture as one does on the outer walls of the temple at Halebeed. Not only are complete stories from the Bhagvad Gita and the Mahabharat and Ramayana depicted in a series of reliefs but sometimes a single relief is enough to recount the entire story. For example the story of Krishna lifting mountain of Govardhana or Narasimha annihilating Hiranyakashyapu. These reliefs served a triple purpose. Not only did they enhance the beauty of the structure but they also revealed various manifestations of the lord to his devotees and entertained and educated them by means of stories.
That the artists who worked on these temples were masters of their craft is obvious. But their commitment and artistry would have come to naught if their society and royalty had not accorded them respect and patronage. The Hoysala society accorded agreeable conditions of work and good fortune to the artists of the time. Only men of great skill and patience whose work was valued by society at that time could have produced such master pieces. Just as warriors were needed to defend boundaries, artists were required by the Hoysalas to promote their religious and social interests. They were considered an important part of society. Notable amongst them are Dâsoja and his son Canava as also Mallitamma. It is thanks to them and so many others like them that we have these amazing temples that continue to inspire “joy, awe and stunned surprise”.
Author: Dr G B Deglurkar Photographs: Namrata Khandekar-Boileau Source: Heritage India Volume 1 Issue 1 (2008)